Is Airline Safety Being Threatened?

Last week, a nationally reported story proclaimed "FAA Oversight Lagging," an allegation that set off renewed jitters among airline consumers. After all, even though it's been an amazing three-and-a-half years since the last major airline accident in the United States, airline flying involves such a huge surrender of personal control that any hint of safety shortcomings gets our immediate attention.

The story cited a report by the Transportation Department's Inspector General and focused on the concern that massive changes in airline schedules are overwhelming the Federal Aviation Administration. While the FAA vociferously disagreed, the simplistic assumption underlying the story is the same one Congress erroneously relied on back in 1978 when it deregulated the airlines: The myth that the FAA has the ability to single-handedly ensure, if not create, airline safety.

In a phrase, they don't. Let me explain.

First, never in the history of commercial aviation has it been safer to fly on U.S. carriers and, for that matter, most major airlines in the world.

But -- and this is a huge warning -- that incredible safety record depends on continuous effort by virtually everyone associated with the commercial airline business to maintain something called the margin of safety.

And who builds and maintains that margin of safety? The airlines themselves, not the FAA.

Achieving a Safety Buffer

There is no clear dividing line between safe or unsafe. The truth is, we've achieved almost perfect airline safety by being very aware of what can go wrong and then building a very robust safety buffer to absorb the mistakes and malfunctions that can't be prevented. That buffer operates just like the wide, grassy center area that divides most interstate highways outside big cities. It keeps out-of-control vehicles traveling in one direction from wreaking potential disaster on those moving in the other direction.

In the case of airlines, the backup mechanical and electronic systems, as well as the procedures engineered into every aspect of airline flying, enable, for instance, a two-engine airliner to fly safely on one engine, or enable the crew to lose two hydraulic systems and still have a safe way to land.

Similarly (as I've pointed out in previous columns here), our recent Renaissance in getting pilots to listen to each other has given us an equally robust ability to have one human catch the rare but inevitable error of another in time to prevent accidents and near-misses. ("Excuse me Captain, I know you don't want to hear this, but you've forgotten to put the landing gear down and the runway's getting close.")

Ever been in a precautionary emergency landing? Few have because it's so rare, but for those who've experienced it, you were momentarily flying in that Safety Buffer, that center grassy divider of aviation. Something went wrong, but it ended uneventfully because we admitted it could go wrong and the airline paid the extra attention and money necessary to make sure that failure could be handled safely.

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